The Dungeon of Harrow (1962) & Death By Invitation (1971)


Long used and abused in public domain THE DUNGEON OF HARROW has never looked better.  As the lightning flashed across the painted matte background I grew giddy with anticipation as this ambitious Texas lensed period piece unfolded.  It is 1870 and Aaron Fallon’s ship is beset by a vicious storm.  It is tossed and turned as the actors bounce about the wobbly set until a model ship dashes itself against some craggy rocks.  There are two survivors, the ship’s captain and Fallon, cast ashore on this remote island.  After coming to the pair find a fairly useless bit of salvage: a tapestry bearing the Fallon family crest.  The uninhabited island proves to be not so uninhabited as the pair hear another unfortunate survivor being torn apart by dogs.  Afterwards the viewers are introduced to the chief inhabitant of the island, one Count Lorente de Sade (pronounced DaSayde) who is quite mad.  How mad?  He has a conversation with himself or at least the personification of his evil and madness.  The reveal initially shown in negative was quite good and a neat effect for 1962.  Then commences the amazing, but sadly brief, show of rubber snakes and bats and giant spiders on string!  It’s simply awesome fun. 

The count is bent that the dogs were loose and upon hearing that a person was mauled to death he sends his henchman,Mantis, out to look for more survivors. Wandering into a trap the two are apprehended by this lumbering giant of a man who looks an awful lot like Dennis Rodman in a cut up Santa suit.  Now in the Castle de Sade are Fallon and the captain guests or prisoners?  The Count is truly quite mad and it is made readily apparent at dinner when his indentured servant, Cassandra, informs Fallon that the Count will not tolerate conversation during repast.”  That is not the only sweet chestnut of great dialogue.  Another great line was just prior when Cassandra informs Fallon that, “Nourishment awaits you.”  In addition to the mad Count de Sade, Cassandra and his right hand Santa Rodman is the buxom, mute and poorly treated Ann  whom the Count believes poisons his wine at every opportunity.  She is repaid for her service with brutal floggings in the first of two dungeons within the castle.  He later ties her to the rack and performs water torture on her.  What does the Count keep in the second dungeon?  His insane leper wife who thinks that every day is her wedding day!  Once the Count tires of Fallon’s company and questioning he introduces him to his wife which turns Fallon’s hair quite gray.  Eventually Cassandra and Fallon find themselves conspiring against the Count in order to survive his mad and torturous ways. 

The acting is quite melodramatic and overwrought and most of the actors never appeared in another

film.   Fallon provides many drawn out and dramatic voiceovers.  The Count chews scenery while Cassandra delivers her lines without any emotion.  Mantis is downright painful to listen to and you will find yourself grateful that he has few lines.  Better yet it is almost as though Howard Hawks had not revolutionized filmmaking with overlapping dialogue as no one talks over anyone in the flick.  Seriously, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was released eleven years prior.  Young Ann provides the eye candy with as she offers herself in gratitude to Fallon and wears a plunging neckline.  Not surprised by the lack of nudity some may find themselves a bit shocked at the blood and grotesquery on display in this surprising good gothic tale.

The film is presented in widescreen with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.   It was developed in lush Eastman Color the greens, reds, and blues vibrantly come to life in this excellent transfer.  The print is in good shape with some damage but not much.  Some scratches and pops in the soundtrack but never drowning out the dialogue. 

DEATH BY INVITATION is a truly bizarre flick shot on Staten Island.  The title sequence is a witch trial set in a Dutch village but you won’t be aware of that until you see it referred to as such in the closing credits.  After the witnesses denunciation of the witch at trail we see the same man sitting at the head of the table during a contemporary family dinner.  In the middle of the toast the young lady who was the witch walks in and sits at the table interrupting the toast and telling her own story.  This is the Vroot family headed up by the boorish Peter.  Lise is the young lady who appeared to be a witch in the flashback and about halfway through the film you find out she isn’t a relative but a friend of Peter’s wife Naomi.  The Vroot children are Roger, Coral, Sarah, Ellie and another young son.  Jake is also at the dinner and he is Coral’s boyfriend or perhaps even fiancé.  The Vroots are very well off living in a waterfront estate and owning a Rolls Royce.  So the opening dinner shows the stage is set for something going on between the reincarnated (?) witch and her accuser…

I suppose the title is in reference to Lise’s first vengeful act on the Vroots.  She invites the oldest son, Roger, to her apartment in the city under what the boy construed as sexual pretenses.  She told him not to tell anyone that he was coming over.  She then asks what he wants to do.  Does he want to talk?  The naïve young man sits down and listens to Lise who now looks extremely strung out as she smokes and tells her tale of the nebulous “southern tribes” and their fierce hunting women.  Get used to the story because it comes up again and again.  You will probably get sick of it by the time the credits roll because you are going to be bludgeoned by it over and over again.  Why?  Because it seems to be used as a metaphor and what use is a good metaphor other than using it to flog people?  After her tale of death and woe she makes the boy kneel and then cuts off his head. 

As she continues to cut a swath through the issue of the oafish Peter’s loins she plays the concerned and

compassionate friend to Naomi though Lise is always shown smiling and smiling even more as the Vroots suffering increases.  The story takes an interesting if brief tack when it equates Peter to Job a rich man with a large family losing his family.  Lise rather mockingly reminds him of the blessings are greater later in Job’s life.  Scenes of the trial and persecution of Lise as a witch are shown intermittently through the film.  Combined with the Job comparison it is difficult to discern which character deserves the viewer’s pity. 

Throughout the film Jake has taken an interest in Lise pursuing her and flirting with her even as Coral watches.  When Jake invites himself to Lise’s apartment she tries to have the upper hand but the tremor in her voice shows that Jake is in control.  Just before the climax of the film there is an extremely uncomfortable and drawn out rape sequence though it is not shown graphically it is fairly devastating as Lise is trying to tell her southern tribes story and keeps saying “Listen to me.  I can hurt you Jake.  Don’t you know that?” over and over again.  Jake discovers her gruesome abattoir as Peter storms in and attacks her.  Jake defends Lise and afterwards she touches him gently her confident expression now returned.  Perhaps she was in control all along?
DEATH BY INVITATION talks a lot and almost falls into the cardinal sin of being boring but there is plenty of shock and sleaze to keep the viewer interested.  Where else can you see a family dinner interrupted by a decapitation and a young girl careening down the stairs to her death?
The theatrical print used for the 2k transfer shows some signs of wear but is mostly clean.  There are no persistent scratches or lines prevalent.  There is a commentary by The Hysteria Continues podcast crew headed up by J.A. Kerswell author of The Slasher Movie Book (Teenage Wastelands for those in Europe).  It is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
Both of the movies look and sound great and though the print for THE DUNGEON OF HARROW is in worse condition than DEATH BY INVITATION the first feature is much more enjoyable than the second.  The commentary for the second is pretty good though I hope that Vinegar Syndrome will get more commentaries that involve people involved in the films’ production like they did with THE TELEPHONE BOOK.  It’s worth picking up for THE DUNGEON OF HARROW alone.  It will be available May 7th on Amazon or you can order directly from Vinegar Syndrome.  Check out the trailer below.  

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